One of Louisiana's most popular breweries is about to double its space and production capacity as a way to strengthen a commitment to an own-premise model. This growth, meanwhile, comes amidst what its owner sees as restrictive state laws that are capping his company’s growth potential.
In January, New Orleans' Courtyard Brewery revealed intentions to build a larger, second location. But for reasons owner Scott Wood declines to share, ongoing legal action related to his original brewery property, and a lack of progress in the development of the space where his new brewery is supposed to go, has thrown everything into disarray.
But now he's got a silver lining in the form of an opportunity to expand his customer base, volume, and the margins from it all that can help his company thrive. And he's leaning in—hard.
Because the Louisiana government has yet to allow breweries the right to self-distribute, Wood is simultaneously working to change that law while preparing a new packaging line to allow for can releases at the brewery, which have proven to be kind of a big deal for small breweries around the country. That move would keep profit within the beer maker’s walls as opposed to sharing it with the distribution or retail tiers.
“I’ve worked in all three tiers of the system, and I know who’s not getting the money,” he says, making a verbal nod toward himself and his brewing peers. “The ones with the boots on.”
Thanks to neighbor, architect, and Courtyard regular Trenton Gauthier, Wood was given an offer he couldn’t refuse: Gauthier purchased and offered to lease an almost century-old funeral home right around the corner from Courtyard.
The 18,000-square foot building has double the production space, double the courtyard space, a full kitchen, and is air-conditioned throughout. It'll allow room for an expanded barrel program while production and taproom space increases from 2,000 square feet to more than 4,500—with an additional 10,000 more to grow into.
With his current lease ending Sept. 30, Wood says he hopes that the transition into his new brewery will begin by mid-September. If all goes to plan, his business will be fully functioning for its sixth anniversary celebration on Oct. 26.
All the while, Wood isn’t taking his eye off the Louisiana State Legislature. Regular can releases and a strong taproom model will help keep his business in the black, but he’s still hopeful for broader, statewide changes that would allow his brewery and others to mature in the market.
To that end, Wood has been working with the Louisiana Craft Brewers Guild as its legislative committee chair to implement the issue he sees as most impactful for the industry—self-distribution. It’s currently legal in 34 states, all of which have more breweries per capita than Louisiana, which ranks 48 out of 51 states/territories according to the Brewers Association.
Nevertheless, distributors in the state, led by advocacy group the Beer Industry League of Louisiana, claim self-distribution by breweries will destroy the three-tier system and is unnecessary for brewers’ success. The conflicting narratives have been going head-to-head for some time.
Wood sees this moment as pivotal to his growth, and is frustrated by the stalled action. If he can’t manage additional costs through a wholesaler, it would be better to keep his beer in-house. But that doesn’t mean he plans to sit still.
“I would love to have our beer widely available,” says Wood, “but I don’t know if we actually have the kind of beer that would work in wider distribution.” It’s a brewer’s worst nightmare to have his or her beer just sitting on a shelf, getting lost in the shuffle, he adds. “Beer sales are falling in the state, and I blame the antiquated three-tier system.”
The Beer Industry League, led by executive director John Williams, has often been at odds with the Brewers Guild. But Guild executive director Cary Koch says that, until recently, it looked like fruitful discussions about self-distribution would take place during the last state legislative session. Koch says there were six meetings that included himself and Williams, as well as attorneys, brewers, and distributors.
Wood adds that “the League promised the Senate Judiciary that they’d work with the brewers to create a bill for self-distribution. We met multiple times and the Guild agreed to all their numbers and caps. They have all the power, so we agreed to all their terms.” Wood himself met with Williams personally three times, as self-distribution was one of Courtyard’s key growth mechanisms as he planned the packaging line at the second Greenway location.
Two weeks before the bill was to be filed, Koch says that John Williams met with him and said they would no longer support the bill. “He said it was too much work for too little return,” Koch says.
And that was that. Asked to comment on the discrepancy between what both Wood’s and Koch’s recollection of the process and this statement, Williams deflected.
“The director [Koch] informed us that they were not filing legislation to allow for self-distribution,” he wrote GBH via email. “We did have a number of conversations, but they said it wasn’t something they were interested in at this time.”
Since there’s no practical way to get any beer-related legislation approved in the Louisiana State Legislature without the approval of the Beer Industry League, technically it’s true that the Guild declined to file any legislation. But Williams carefully leaves out the part he played in ensuring that the bill didn’t happen.
Despite the legislative setbacks, Wood is happy about his current situation—on the brink of expansion, and surrounded by supportive neighbors.
“Around here, doing it yourself is the only way things get done,” Gauthier says. “Organized efforts can be hit or miss, but to me, building a community is just about pairing the right people with the right properties, and I’m happy to have helped facilitate that.”
Even though things seem to be going smoothly for now, Wood says he’s crossing his fingers for a timely transition. “This city has a way of testing your strength and resolve but rewarding your faith and persistence.”